While the Berlin Wall has fallen and what was known as Russia is in shambles, communism had its say big-time in bringing African-American music into the American mainstream. In 1938, record and concert producer John Hammond couldn’t find a sponsor for his integrated concert of jazz, blues, dixieland, gospel and folk artists at Carnegie Hall. Finally, the Communist Party’s cultural journal, New Masses, rose to the occasion, and “Spirituals to Swing” was delivered to a sold-out crowd on December 23. The show was so successful that Hammond produced a second concert on Christmas Eve the following year, this one sponsored by the leftist Theater Arts Committee.
Performances from these groundbreaking events come under one banner in the new, three-CD box set Spirituals to Swing. The package also includes a reproduction of the 1938 program, original liner notes by John Hammond and Charles Edward Smith, John Sebastian’s review, which appeared in New Masses, remembrances from trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison (who was a member of the first concert’s “house band,” the Count Basie Orchestra) and 23 previously unreleased tracks.
Though the quality of the recordings on Spiritual to Swing is certainly not as bright as that of today’s releases, the set is a shiny reflection of where all American popular music was born–and it wasn’t in the mind of some corporate music-company magnate. Rather, it came out of the fields, churches and juke joints of the rural South (and it sounds a bit odd hearing the polite applause after Sonny Terry and Bull City Red’s whoopin’ and hollerin’). “The New John Henry,” Lester Young, Charlie Christian and Buck Clayton (as part of the Kansas City Six) define sophistication on cuts like “Paging the Devil” and “Good Morning Blues.” The Count Basie Orchestra (which included Young, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones) and Benny Goodman’s integrated sextet (with Lionel Hampton on vibes, Christian on guitar and Fletcher Henderson at the piano) swing mightily on “One O’Clock Jump” and “Flying Home.” And vocalists Ida Cox, Helen Humes, Joe Turner and Sister Rosetta Tharpe croon on standards, shout the blues and take the crowd to church on gospel numbers.
If only every radio program director were to sit down and give the breadth of Spirituals to Swing a listen, we might be able to re-create that time when all kinds of music flowed together as a cultural expression rather than the tightly-formatted and marketed commercialism that passes for music today. Until that time comes, listening to Spirituals to Swing is as revolutionary, and revelatory, an act as the concerts themselves.